The struggling North Island town where rates cost $70 a week

Fifty-six-year-old Michelle Wi lost her cleaning job at Waitomo Caves in late May - a result of COVID-19.

"I loved being a cleaner. It's probably not the flashest job in the world, but it's something that I enjoyed, and then the pandemic hit, and our world has changed," says the Te Kuiti resident.

Michelle is now focusing her time and energy on creating a community garden, the fruits of her labour supplying kai to whanau doing it tough in Te Kuiti.

"We've got foodbanks, they need food and we can't rely on the Government forever. I thought hey, let's do something because it's mental health-wise, it's something really good when you can make your own food."

Three food banks have become a lifeline for the Waitomo District's 9000- strong population, around 44 percent of whom are Māori. 

And it's not just whanau feeling the financial strain - the Waitomo District Council is the fifth-most indebted council in the country, behind Christchurch, Auckland, Dunedin and Queenstown.

"We've been in this debt for 20 years, but all we've done ever since is borrow, borrow, borrow and the amount of money that we've had, we could have paid a hell of a lot more back on our debt. To me it isn't the focus and that's where it's wrong."

Currently at $40 million, Michelle says ratepayers have been bearing the burden of that debt. The rates for her whare have steadily increased by about $100 a year.

"When I first bought my home 30 years ago my rates were $500. They are now $3515 a year."

And there's no relief in sight. On May 26 the Waitomo council voted to increase residential rates by 1.54 percent.

Mayor John Robertson was elected in 2019 after campaigning on a policy to freeze rates. But he was outvoted by all six other Waitomo District Councillors. 

"I found out we were going to be redundant on the day of the rates meeting so that was like icing on the cake to know that your rates were going to go up as well," says Michelle.

Katrina Winn moved to Te Kuiti from Auckland last year and wasn't aware that rates here are some of the most expensive in the country.

"The cost of rates here was a shock to us... and they're more than double what we were paying in Auckland. It doesn't make any sense to me whatsoever. There were definitely ways for the budget to be reduced, without having to increase rates to cover further expenditure."

Katrina organised a petition on behalf of ratepayers, which she presented to Waitomo District Council on May 26.

But the six Councillors pushed for the rate rise, adamant they have to pay down debt. They also disputed just how many people in the community were affected by the coronavirus.

"Look, I don't think anyone can justify increasing their budgets in a post-COVID environment," Katrina adds.

A visit to Waitomo Village, on the outskirts of Te Kuiti, reveals the new reality. Once a destination for overseas visitors, the town is a shell of its former self with tourist attractions having limited opening hours for a much smaller domestic market.

"The businesses around here that are involved with tourism have either closed or they've laid off staff or they're planning to lay off staff," Katrina adds. "Now they've got a rates increase as well, talk about a kick in the guts. I just don't get that, it doesn't make any sense to me at all."

Michelle Wi.
Michelle Wi. Photo credit: The Hui

"The jobs were there," says Michelle Wi. "What scares me now is they aren't, the jobs aren't there. I would never have thought you could do without a cleaner."

Charles Taituha manages two sheep and beef farms on Māori freehold land for 1700 shareholders. While Te Kuiti residents' rates might be going up by about 2 percent, it's farmers who are contributing to the bulk of the tax take - with rural rates rising by almost 5 percent.

"Rates are probably our second-largest bill, apart from fertiliser. We just about pay more on rates than we do pay on wages sometimes," says Charles.

Charles says for the whanau he works for paying even more could see them have to sell up.

A short drive north of Te Kuiti, ratepayers in Otorohanga are under a different district council here, and their rates on land - be it rural or residential - are the envy of Waitomo residents. 

"If I was a farmer I would not buy in Te Kuiti. I can have the same lifestyle 15 minutes away in another district council with half the rates cost," says Katrina.

"We understand we have to pay rates, but when you look at other councils like our next-door neighbour council, Otorohanga - fairly similar size ratepayers, all the things are fairly similar, when you look and you can see why our rates are so high you sort of start questioning why does no one change this? Why are we carrying on in this trajectory?" Charles asks.

Michelle had the same questions. At a time when she should be looking forward to planning her retirement, she's trying to figure out how she'll service her soaring rates bill.

"I'm mortgage-free and I should be able to retire... that's usually your biggest debt, but I can't. I pay $70 a week for rates, that is ridiculous."

The calls from the community for Waitomo District Council to hold off a rates rise during these uncertain financial times have been ignored.

"Nothing can justify a rate increase that's going to impact farmers and businesses to the degree that it is, just for an extra $316,000 next year," says Katrina.

But Waitomo's Deputy Mayor Guy Whitaker, who voted for the rates rise, says the council is comfortable with its decision and believes it was the right thing to do.

"We believe that an increase of 1.54 percent is realistic and at the same time it's not going to create any problems further down. We're not going to need to reduce any services and we're not expecting to get massive increases in rates going forward."

Over the past 10 years, upgrades to Waitmo's water supply infrastructure and roads have cost them a massive $40 million, and Councillors are determined to pay down debt.

"Yes the debt level is relatively high, but that's because we have done most of our infrastructure upgrades and we're in a good position there, unlike some other councils," Whitaker says.

"I'm proud of our infrastructure that we have in this council. I'm proud of the way that we are working our way on reducing that debt and we will continue to do so and I'm proud to have been able to be on the Waitomo District Council."

As well as exorbitant rates, residents here also pay some of the highest prices for power in the country, forking out for not one but two energy bills every month. Add to that the COVID-19 crisis, and life in the Waitomo District has become almost impossible. 

"We did not believe that we were targeting those people most in need by giving a blanket zero percent rate increase. We are well aware there's probably more ramifications coming - COVID-19 and unemployment is going to be a big issue," Whitaker says.

Guy Whitaker.
Guy Whitaker. Photo credit: The Hui

Waitomo Council say residential properties in places like Maniati/Benneydale, Piopio, Te Waitere and Mokau will see reductions despite the 1.54 percent rate rise across the district.

But ratepayers want Waitomo Council to show leadership and look at other ways of cutting costs starting with their own salaries.

"As far as the council goes it's actually set by the remuneration authority and the council can't reduce the leadership costs," Whitaker says. "Unfortunately you can't do salary cuts. Firstly it's not council, the governance job, it's management and the management can't do that because they have employment contracts and you cannot reduce someone's wages or salary."

Rural ratepayers are going to be the hardest hit. 

"This year they are paying the majority of the increase, yes," Whitaker adds, not ruling out more increases to rates in future.

"We're working through the long term plan, that will fall out from the long term plan. I have no idea at this stage."

For Michelle, the bleak outlook is being met with determination. The Te Kuiti local is rolling up her sleeves to help put kai on the table for herself and others.

"It gives me something to get up for and I know it's going to benefit the community, that's why I want to hurry up and get it done. It's helpful, it's really helpful."

Ratepayers will be notified of their new rates this month.

The Hui

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